Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Physical Doesn't Matter, Part 2

From a writing perspective, a romance in which the physical doesn't matter will have difficulty overcoming its own assumptions. The result is often not a profound declaration of the importance of the "inner self." It is often a profound declaration of a confused belief system.

Actually, based on reviews I've encountered online, readers who already believe in the importance of the "inner self" at the expense of the physical experience will love this type of story.

I don't.

Two books point the comparison, the first of which I will name.

The Good Example (A Book That Deals With the Physical in a Truly Open-Hearted Way)

In KJ Charles's excellent Unsuitable Heir, Penn is a transgendered biological male who meets Mark who becomes his lover. Mark's catholic sexual preferences and interests are established early on. Penn fits them perfectly, yet he and Mark still stumble in the early stages of their relationship regarding likes and dislikes, from pronouns to bedroom preferences.

In fact, KJ Charles is one of the first romance writers I've encountered who actually deals with people's bedroom preferences--see A Seditious Affair. (Traditional and trope romances tend to assume that perfect lovers will like doing all the same things all the time.)

The reader is also allowed into Penn's head; we witness his wariness, his frustration, his discomfort with his own body. I found the narrative enlightening. I may not always be happy with my physical self, but I've always felt at home in it. Reading Unsuitable Heir was the first time I understood the unease of a person wanting to wear and shed their own skin, sometimes almost simultaneously ("his" is used in both texts; I use the modern "their" in parts of this post for the sake of clarity).

In terms of writing, the reader is prepared to believe that thoughtful, eclectic, occasionally uncertain Mark will accept the totality of Penn in all his cross-dressing glory. Mark, no matter how "Penny Plain," is rather exceptional, as the reader comes to appreciate. But only because the reader is allowed to see Mark thinking and reacting and being uncertain: What don't I know? I have to ask questions, so here goes, and I guess I'll deal with the fall-out.

The Poor Example (a Book that Tries to Deal with the Physical by Ignoring It)

The second book--which I read because of a reference to KJ Charles in the acknowledgements--was not badly written (though poorly proofread). In fact, the historical setting/description is impressive, evocative without being dry. And there's a plot!

Unfortunately, the characters did not live up to my expectations. The main character was intersex (historically referred to as a hermaphrodite). However, I did not come away enlarged in my understanding regarding that experience/reality, which affects between .05-1.5% of the current population. (The numbers are complicated by things like surgical intervention, an issue that causes a great deal of controversy.)

Instead, I came away puzzled.

1. The lover of the main character is a gay man. The reader is given no indication that his preferences might include an intersex partner.
Pierce Brosnan, who went to prison, lived as a
man and dressed as one; the prison determined he
was a hermaphrodite after an examination
for a related medical condition.

That may sound intolerant (and the book certainly implies that a lack of instant acceptance/knowledge equals intolerance) except that expecting gay men to change their physical preferences and desires at the drop of a soulful hat is intensely problematic and can lead to even more intolerant assumptions. And to 1950s cliches.

It is entirely possible--intersex being as complex as it is--that physical preferences and desires would not become an issue. A person in the Old West was "uncovered" as female yet had fathered children. Thomasine, an intersex person in Colonial Times, dressed as a woman or as a man when it fit their needs. And had no trouble obtaining partners in either case.

The problem isn't whether or not intersex people are or are not attractive to the people they approach. The writing problem here is...

2. Hermaphroditic or intersex features matter enough to be an issue for the main character but not enough for anyone else to make an issue out of them.

The main character is understandably upset when their lover-to-be is not instantly supportive of their condition. Yes, being seen as a "freak" would taint a person's self-image and cause that person to react defensively. I was a little startled at the main character's lack of objectivity but I understood their reaction.

Until I realized that that no one was going to confront the main character on their expectation of instant acceptance. The lover (should but) does not argue the following:
"What the--?! I'm a nineteenth century man, and you dumped this on me! On top of which, you know that current medical viewpoints on this subject aren't complete or reliable since hardly anybody knows any hermaphrodites--though there may be attendant medical issues which make the diagnosis necessary! And by the way, I'm a doctor, so any previous training, including preconceptions I might have on this topic, is kind of natural, don't you think? In fact, why aren't you, another doctor, asking more questions about yourself?!"
In Wonder, the boy has to live and mature
with his condition--he can't ignore it
since others won't. How is that like--and
different from--somebody who is, say, bipolar?
Instead, the lover says, "Why do you assume that I don't know what it is like to be judged?"

That's the issue on the table? Who feels more judged? Not, "Hey, what is your reality like?" Rather, "I'm so sorry I didn't deliver instant acceptance and understanding despite a complete lack of Wikipedia or, for that matter, a modern sensibility?"

I feel compelled to add that the lover is a black man--which is interesting in its own rights--but the use of race in this case flummoxed me. The two things are not equatable, not because prejudice is something that both an intersex person and a black person don't experience but because the circumstances of prejudice are quite different. A thematic relationship between types of prejudice could have been made if the characters had been allowed to discuss--rather than briefly argue--what it means to "hide," the impossibility of hiding certain characteristics, and whether hiding is self-protection or self-identity. In addition, what is the difference between being a curiosity and being valued, being used and being helped? (Was Buffalo Bill exploiting or rescuing the Native Americans in his show and why is the answer "both"?)

This doesn't happen (other than the aforementioned brief argument), so I was left feeling flummoxed.

I was hopeful at the beginning of the book that I would experience the same empathy with the intersex character as I did with Charles's Penn. Instead, I came away with a lecture: Accept. Don't make a big deal about this. Okay, maybe you can ask questions. But not enough to make anyone feel bad. And certainly not enough to think, "So having intimate relations isn't any different with an intersex person? How is the reader supposed to know this without going to Wikipedia?" 

It was rather like indulging in an experiment with deconstructionism: as long as we don't label anything, the issues don't exist!

Wrap-Up

"The LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the
outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart."
Yes, certain beliefs are universal and transcend time. But not by the physical reality--the actual culture and time period--being ignored; rather, transcendence occurs when those things are addressed

History does NOT repeat itself: each event in history is a fully complex occurrence with its own background and issues. The event's complexity, from the historical personages involved to their interactions and choices, deserves attention and understanding.

Consequently, when I read historical fiction, I expect the characters to be historical characters, not modern characters plunked into a historical milieu. After all, in the end, I don't go to literature to be instructed; I go to experience what C.S. Lewis described when he wrote:
"I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
Lewis's point is also the power of the romance. A good romance lets us in to other people's hearts, shows us odd people (whatever their appearance--because everybody is odd) finding and falling in love with other odd people. Transcendence transpires when we see reality through their eyes, not when reality is waved aside in favor of an ideological position: "good people wouldn't care about any of that physical stuff!" 
Ten Count: Two obsessive men make a connection.
It isn't easy. So far, it's taken 5-6 volumes.

The ability to accept people in their bodies, not merely through their minds, is a truly awesome ability and deserves its accolades. But it isn't easy. Kudos to the writer who can delve into issues of the physical self, no matter how muddy and difficult, rather than skirting them.

And a hey-do-better-next-time to the writer who thinks that "good" people would never make a big deal out of anything physical or wish to correct their ignorance by having things explained or need time to wrap their minds around something that society has taught them to think of in a particular way . . . or, which is more difficult with likable characters, prove unable to leap that gap.

Completely changing human nature (with all its evolutionary and nurtured actions and reactions) to create a romance is bad sci-fi, not good romance.